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Hearthstone RNG and the Future

While he was not exactly a pillar of the Hearthstone streaming community, Lifecoach has effectively “quit” Hearthstone and moved to Gwent. The reason? RNG, of course. Here is a partial transcript:

Because you usually don’t lose that many games that you played perfectly, which is by the pretty much impossible. So, what I’m saying is the games you lose are the games where you blunder, where you did mistakes, which can definitely not be said about any game of Hearthstone. In Hearthstone, just today I have a direct comparison, you play really well, extremely well, and you can lose a lot of games, or you play very crappy and you win a lot of games.

In Gwent, you have nearly 90% that’s nearly unloseable, if you do the same in Hearthstone – 60%. But, the funny thing is, if you play extremely well, you might have 65%, and you if really, really play bad Hearthstone that day, it doesn’t matter, you still have 50-55%. I’m not even kidding here, yeah?

You can play like crap and you can still have 50%, it doesn’t even matter, it’s not even that important how you, it’s like coin flipping with a little bit of strategy. So, maybe how you rotate the coin so that it flies through the air at a specific angle so that you can have a 10% higher chance of having this head outcome or tail outcome.

While I cannot speak for Gwent, what he is saying about Hearthstone is 100% true. And I believe it’s pretty clear at this point that this is not a bug, but a feature.

As I pointed out in 2014 and 2015, the complaint Lifecoach is leveling here is the precise reason RNG exists. Without RNG, games become deterministic – the better player wins. On the face of it, that sounds exactly how things should go. And yet here we all are, not playing Chess 24/7.

Randomness is frustrating, but it can also be exciting, both for the players and also for the audience. Randomness can also lessen the sting from defeat, even if said defeat was inevitable. Especially when the defeat was inevitable, e.g. when facing a better opponent. Because that is really the second edge of the sword when it comes to games like Gwent (presumably) or other 90% skill games: nobody likes inevitable defeats.

Which is a problem if you are trying to cast a wide net and capture a big F2P audience.

For the record, I am not trying to disparage skill-based competitive games. I enjoy some of them, some of the time. Typically, they simply produce more anxiety than I feel like experiencing in my downtime; an anxiety that I do not feel when playing skill-based single-player games. I can lose in embarrassing ways in a roguelike all day, no problem. Losing against a human opponent though, triggers all sorts of monkey brain routines.

Incidentally, this is why I prefer games like the Battlefield series to, say, Counter-Strike. Skill matters a bit in the various Battlefield games, but you aren’t going to be single-handedly responsible for your team losing a match. Tank rolls by and blasts you. Oh well. Terrorist pops out and AWPs you. Rage.

Now, in regards to Hearthstone, I will admit that it is in its worst shape since the Goblins vs Gnomes expansion. As Lifecoach points out later on, Team 5 has gone on record as stating that they don’t like combo decks and are trying to tone down direct damage as well. The goal is to force more interaction with minions on the board, rather than One-Turn-Killing someone from your hand. But this is the same design team that thought Small-Time Buccaneer was balanced, and otherwise created an environment where dying on turn 5 is pretty much assured.

The real problem, IMO, is more fundamental: Team 5 is way too laissez-faire when it comes to balancing a digital card game. If there are cards and decks out there that are straight-up broken, Team 5 will wait to see if things balance themselves out. And if that doesn’t work out, they will wait until the next Adventure/Expansion to see if some new cards shift the metagame enough that the original problem goes away on its own. Only when the problem has been festering for months and turned into full-blown sepsis will they deign to nerf an absurdly powerful card. It’s maddening.

I get it. Sorta. Supercell has monthly balance patches for Clash Royale, in which they pick winners and losers based on usage and win rates. This works, but sometimes feels heavy-handed, as usually a buff means that particular unit becomes Flavor of the Month. Not that Team 5 would ever buff a card, because it’s way better to just create (and sell!) a new card instead. But we can imagine a scenario in which Pirates are too strong (they are), Team 5 nerfs a few pirates a month later, then has to nerf the ascendant Jade Druid a month after that, and so on.

At the same time, three months is too long. Especially since Blizzard doesn’t have to worry about errata, or reprinting physical cards, or anything of the sort. There are already proven mechanisms of reimbursement – full Arcane Dust for disenchanting – that can be further juiced if necessary. There is no good reason to wait so long, and every reason to act.

Because it doesn’t take all that long to ruin a good thing. Especially if it’s already borderline.